By Naomi Silas | photography by Maria Lewis Photography, 2015
am a survivor of child and domestic abuse. I have complex trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I am also the parent of a beautiful 7-year-old son. When it comes to parenting, some days are good and some aren’t. The same can be said for living with PTSD. When parenting while living with PTSD, sometimes those good and not so good days don’t always sync up.
In her article“Understanding Complex Trauma, Complex Reactions, and Treatment Approaches,” Dr. Christine Courtois summarizes complex traumatic events and experiences as stressors as: (1) repetitive, prolonged, or cumulative (2 ) most often interpersonal, involving direct harm, exploitation, and maltreatment including neglect/abandonment/antipathy by primary caregivers or other ostensibly responsible adults, and (3) often occur at developmentally vulnerable times in the victim’s life, especially in early childhood or adolescence, but can also occur later in life and in conditions of vulnerability associated with disability/ disempowerment/ dependency/ age / infirmity, and so on. It’s estimated that 1 out of 10 women will get PTSD at some time in their lives. Women are about twice as likely as men to develop PTSD.
I was raised in what can only be described as a religious cult. Everything from what I ate and wore was dictated by some sort of “law” of the church. When I was 12, I was caught skipping math class which lead to be me being accused of everything from doing drugs to having sex. I don’t even know how skipping math class could equate to either of those accusations in someone’s mind. Nonetheless, my parents were told to “beat the truth out of me,” and they complied. After a week of continuous beatings, I falsely admitted to my parents,“Whatever you think I did, I did,” just to make it stop. They didn’t believe that I just hated math.
I was a kid, and my small world got even smaller when I was excommunicated from the “church.” I was able to live at my parent’s house, unlike other children who were excommunicated. I was so naive that I didn’t know that this was abuse. My parents used to say that they “beat me because they love me.” They are
not in my life anymore.
It took me years to understand that love does not hit or harm. I learned this lesson the hard way in my early 20s. I was in a relationship with a former Special Forces Army Veteran who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most days he was great, but sometimes he would get a glossy look in his eyes,and I knew in his mind he was in a war zone. He drank mostly to forget, and so did I. Our relationship was codependent; we both felt like we were broken and looking for someone else to make us whole. When I tell people it ended badly, they usually think I mean that my heart was broken, but it ended with me in the hospital. I can’t recall how many stitches were in my nose anymore, but I needed a plastic surgeon to stitch me up.
It was when I was alone in the hospital after being put back together by a plastic surgeon that I finally realized my worth. It took going through all of that to realize that I deserved better than that, even if I didn’t know what better felt like. Love does not hurt or harm. Love builds you up, supports and envelops you with warmth.
I’m fortunate that my son is a healthy and happy child. I work hard to protect him in ways that I was not protected. I’m honest with him, I fuel his creativity and curiosity and allow him a voice to express and challenge — things I was denied. I make sure he knows that he’s loved and that I can be wrong and he can be right. I support him in any new adventure he wants to take. I’m raising an adult that will be ready to take on the world. I’m being the parent I never had, and am giving him everything I needed when I was growing up.
Beyond that, I carry extreme guilt because I have this secret. He doesn’t know that I’ve suffered and struggled and have PTSD. It’s a tough conversation for which he is not ready. One day I will tell him, but for now, I want to protect his innocence. It’s hard for me to think about telling him about any of my trauma. Will he be 10? 12? 16? He’s such a sweet child that I imagine him knowing this about me would bring him pain and sadness. He’s asked me before if I had parents and if they were dead; I simply told him that they aren’t in our lives for a reason. I let him know that sometimes people grow apart or don’t always agree on things, and while you should do your best to make sure that doesn’t happen, unfortunately, sometimes it does. I quickly reassured him that it would never happen between us.
That isn’t to say that my living with PTSD hasn’t affected him or our household because it has. It was easier when he wasn’t old enough to ask me if I’m OK when I’m having an off day.
On my worst day, it’s almost like time is just passing, and I have zero emotional response or attachment to anything or anyone. I feel like a shell of a person, uninterested in the things around me. My mind turns off the day-to-day processes of dreaming, thinking and engaging; and focuses only the trauma that found its way up through the form of a trigger. I’m glad to say that I haven’t had one of those days in quite some time. I am aware of my trauma and tend to stay away from watching movies or the evening news in order to not to stir it up.
WebMD describes triggers as, “Anything that reminds you of what happened right before or during a trauma is a potential trigger. They’re usually tied to your senses. You may see, feel, smell, touch or taste something that brings on your symptoms. While triggers themselves are usually harmless, they cause your body to react as if you’re in danger.”
I am very self-aware. When I find myself on the edge, I retreat to my room and calm down. I’ll take some deep breaths, but mostly I just need to give my brain time to process what’s going on around me. Being mindful is another way that I cope; I find joy, amazement and the good in everything that comes my way. I have a grand scale in my mind, and tend to weigh things compared to my life experience—most things in my current life tend to be “no big deal” in comparison to my past.
It’s vital for me to have time to retreat and be away from people, which isn’t always easy with a child wanting every waking moment of your attention. If finding work-life balance is already hard for most people, finding a balance to being a parent and mental wellness tips the scales at times.
Children learn by observation; they model their behavior after their parents. My son learned to freeze from me. Even though I knew this, and did my best to hide my PTSD and any signs of it from my son. At times, I struggle to project my feelings. I’ve been called a robot; I’ve been told that I don’t seem excited about things I truly am excited about.
One afternoon, when he was 4-years-old, he decided to hang off of our refrigerator door. The door came off and fell on top of him. My husband and I heard only a loud bang, followed by silence; my son didn’t make a sound. It was the first time I realized that he should have at least yelled for help or at least called out. He was unscathed (the refrigerator wasn’t). Afterward, I explained to him that he should have reacted differently — he should call for help or shout, or merely express his fear or surprise if something like that were to happen again.
At the time of the refrigerator incident, I didn’t realize that it was perhaps my fault that he didn’t know how he should react. It wasn’t until one day when I accidentally dropped a glass bottle in the gymnasium of his school after an awards ceremony did I realize that I freeze. Several adults nearby sprung into action, and I was frozen where I stood. The sound of shattering glass elicited flight or fright in me, and my mind was taken back to a time where I was lost. It took me several days to process what happened and why I couldn’t snap out of what felt like a trance. In that time of reflection, I saw the correlation of my freezing and my son not being able to react in an appropriate emotional response.
In the time between 4 and 7-years-old, my son has developed his voice. He spent time working with an excellent speech pathologist, which has allowed him to mature and articulate his emotions clearly.
Having my son was scary (and unexpected), but the single most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. My hope for my son is that he never knows the pain that I’ve known and never feels that I was ever anything other than supportive of his wants, needs and dreams. When I look at his face and hear him tell me about his day, I feel whole. He is the reason that I am choosing to speak out on traumatic things that I’ve survived. If me talking about things can help people find the courage to get out of a bad situation, or lets them know that they aren’t alone and that the can and will experience joy.